Senior Editor
bumblebees on flower

See that? That’s a fish. Photo: Unsplash

The Inertia

Bumblebees, as you’re likely aware, are not fish. Not in traditional sense anyway. Traditional sense as in they’re insects that fly around in the air and aren’t fish that swim around in the sea. But a California court recently ruled that bumblebees, despite not being fish, are fish. As strange as it may sound, it’s a good thing.

The most recent court ruling is actually more of a confirmation that an earlier ruling finding that bumblebees are fish was correct. The justices at California’s Third District Court of Appeal and Californian Supreme Court were quick to point out that they do know that bumblebees aren’t really fish. So why the ruling? Well, now that bumblebees are classified as an invertebrate, they can be protected under the California Endangered Species Act.

“The issue presented here is whether the bumble bee, a terrestrial invertebrate, falls within the definition of fish,” the judges of the Third District Court of Appeal said in their summation. See, under California’s endangered species act, only birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, or fish are covered. Insects aren’t on the list, so in one of the most classic examples of governmental ridiculousness, instead of simply adding insects to the list, they thought it would be easier to call an insect a fish.

They even explained their reasoning how they decided that an insect could be a fish. “A fish, as the term is commonly understood in everyday parlance, of course, lives in aquatic environments,” the judges said. “As the Department and the Commission note, however, the technical definition in section 45 [of California’s Fish and Game Code] includes mollusks, invertebrates, amphibians, and crustaceans, all of which encompass terrestrial and aquatic species.”

In short, the court’s confirmation gives the Fish and Game Commission the authority to list invertebrates as endangered or threatened species.

“We next considered whether the Commission’s authority is limited to listing only aquatic invertebrates. We conclude the answer is, ‘no’,” it said. “Although the term fish is colloquially and commonly understood to refer to aquatic species, the term of art employed by the Legislature in the definition of fish in section 45 is not so limited.”

So basically, if the Fish and Game Commission says that bumblebees are fish, then in the eyes of the law, they’re fish. And as weird and convoluted as the path was to getting there, the end goal — protecting bumblebees — was reached. Conservationists are happy with how it all turned out.

“We are elated with the California Supreme Court’s decision,” Sarina Jepsen, endangered species director with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, said. “Today’s decision confirms that California Endangered Species Act protections apply to all of our state’s imperiled native species and is critical to protecting our state’s renowned biodiversity.”

Bees, as is the case with all pollinators, are vitally important to a healthy ecosystem. And bumblebees in particular are in a bad spot, for a variety of mysterious reasons. In the last few years, their populations have drastically declined, and although researchers aren’t 100 percent sure why, exactly, that is, they suspect pesticide use, habitat loss and increased competition with other species are contributing to the die offs.

“With one out of every three bites of food we eat coming from a crop pollinated by bees, this court decision is critical to protecting our food supply,” said Rebecca Spector, West Coast Director at the Center for Food Safety. “The decision clarifies that insects such as bees qualify for protections under CESA, which are necessary to ensure that populations of endangered species can survive and thrive.”


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